Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Imperfection of Perfection / Parshat Emor 2016-5776

Aimee Mullins has a dozen pairs of legs which give her a range of height from 5’ 8” to 6’ 1”. Her legs are made of silicone, solid ash, optically clear polyurethane, and woven carbon-fibre. The silicone legs are nearly indistinguishable from human legs; they even have veins. The solid ash legs are carved with grape vines and magnolias. Aimee’s several pairs of polyurethane legs are whimsical. And  her woven carbon-fibre legs, called “cheetah” legs, are for running races; Aimee ran the 100-meter sprint in 17.01 seconds and jumped 3.14 meters in the long-jump at the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta. But that’s not all. Aimee Mullins is also has an extensive career as a fashion model and actress.

Mullins was born without fibula bones. At the age of one, both legs were amputated below the knee. This did not prevent her from participating in athletics nor winning a full academic scholarship to Georgetown University.

It is not so long ago that Aimee Mullins would have been considered a poor, little disabled girl and her accomplishments on the track field, as well as in modeling and acting, all but unthinkable. There is a long history going back at least to the Bible, but probably much further, concerning the “perfect” human body. We find it writ large in this week’s parashah, Emor.

Emor opens with the restrictions placed on the priests descended from Aaron who served in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and brought sacrifices to the altar. Contact with the dead was forbidden unless the deceased was an immediate relative. Priests were not permitted to shave their face, cut the side-growth of their beard, or mar their bodies with gashes. They could marry only a virgin (widows, divorcees, or harlots were “tainted” with imperfection). And finally, they were disqualified from serving in the Mishkan if they had a mum (bodily defect):

Adonai spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God. No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes…shall be qualified to offer Adonai’s offering by fire…He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I Adonai have sanctified them. (Leviticus 21:16-23)

Etz Hayim, struggling to explain what we, in the 21st century, find morally repugnant in this text, tells us:

The reader may be troubled by these rules, disqualifying physically handicapped kohanim [priests] from officiating in public. Perhaps their disfigurements would distract the worshipers from concentrating on the ritual and, like the offering of the blemished animal [which is also forbidden by Torah; see Leviticus 22:21–25], would compromise the sanctuary’s image as a place of perfection reflecting God’s perfection… Today we might well consider the religious institution that is willing to admit its own imperfections and is willing to engage physically handicapped spiritual leaders as being better able to welcome worshipers who are painfully aware of their own physical or emotional imperfections… (Etz Hayim, p. 719)

The suggestion that “disfigured” officiants would be distracting and “compromise the sanctuary’s image” might reflect the sensibility of the biblical world—I don’t really know—but the supposition that the Mishkan was a “place of perfection reflecting God’s perfection” is anachronistic. The idea of God’s “perfection” is an ideal that came into vogue later, long after the Mishkan, and the Temples that succeeded it, were gone from the scene.

Our struggle today is to transition from seeing some people as “disfigured” and “handicapped,” whose value is measured primarily by how they make others feel (are they not valuable in and of themselves?), to recognizing that the diversity in God’s creation is just that: diversity. There is no perfection except in our imaginations. The religious obligation and goal is to recognize the Divine value of everyone and not to judge how far from “perfection” anyone falls.

Aimee Mullins recounts that some years ago, a friend said to her, “You know, Aimee, you’re very attractive. You don’t look disabled.” Some years later, she arrived at a party sporting legs that made her 6’ 1” tall and encountered an old friend who said, “But you’re so tall! Aimee, that’s not fair!” Many would see this as progress, but I cannot help but wonder: Doesn’t the second comment still reflect the same standard of beauty as a function of  so-called human perfection? Perfection is a perfectly dreadful idea.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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